Freemason, Journalist, Writer, Poet; Author of “Tubal Cain”
Charles Mackay was born in Perth, Scotland on 26th March, 1812- although for some obscure reason he always gave it as 27th March, 1814. His father, George Mackay was a member of the armed forces, serving at one time with the Royal Artillery. His mother Amelia Cargill died very shortly after his birth.
Mackay spent little time in Scotland, the family moving to England where he spent most of the rest of his life. In 1828 however, his father sent him to school in Brussels where he studied languages. In 1830 he gained employment as a private secretary, at which point he began writing in French and sending English poems to a local newspaper. Returning to England he engaged in journalism working as an occasional contributor to The Sun newspaper, before spending a number of years as Assistant Sub-Editor of the Morning Chronicle. It was during his time at the Chronicle that Mackay met and became firm friends with a young writer just starting out on his literary career - one Charles Dickens!
In the autumn of 1839 Mackay returned to his homeland of Scotland as a visitor, spending a month there, during which time he took in the Eglintoun Tournament - his experience of which he wrote about in the Chronicle; and at the same time, he made a number of acquaintances in Edinburgh. He returned to Scotland on a more permanent basis in 1844 where he served as Editor of the Glasgow Argus for three years before resigning. He returned to London where he worked for the Illustrated London News eventually becoming Editor in 1852.
In addition to his work in newspapers, Mackay was also a very accomplished writer and poet, and amongst his most famous works was: Songs and Poems, published in 1834; and Extraordinary Popular Delusions and Madness of Crowds, published in 1841. He made a trip to North America, and in 1859 published his conclusions in Life and Liberty in America: or Sketches of a Tour of the United States and Canada in 1857-58. He returned there as an American Civil War correspondent for The Times between 1862 and 1865,and was credited with uncovering and reporting on an Irish Republican group known as the Fenian Brotherhood. Mackay’s former newspaper: the Illustrated London News carried the following report on the matter:
“The New York correspondent of the Times (Mackay) states that the Fenians are remarkably active in the northern States, and that large funds are being collected and sent to Ireland, or expended in the purchase of arms….The day has been fixed for the establishment of a provisional government: 200,000 men are sworn to sustain it; the American and Irish officers who have joined the movement are silently making their way into Ireland; and operations are to be inaugurated sooner, much sooner, than any of you can believe. Each steamer on her arrival at Queenstown from New York or Boston is boarded by the police, who, as a telegram states, search the passengers’ luggage for arms or treasonable documents.”
Mackay was a Freemason; details of his admission into the Craft are currently sketchy, but he was made Poet Laureate, of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No. 2, Edinburgh, in 1887, joining the ranks of the likes of Robert Burns and Anthony Oneal Haye- and other Freemasons who gained that singular honour.
As a Poet and Freemason, it would be strange indeed if Brother Mackay did not pen some Masonic- inspired poetry- and indeed he did, writing one of the most famous verses: “Tubal Cain”:-
Old Tubal Cain was a man of might
In the days when the Earth was young;
By the fierce red light of his furnace bright
The strokes of his hammer rung;
And he lifted high his brawny hand
On the iron glowing clear,
Till the sparks rushed out in scarlet showers
And he fashioned the sword and spear.
And he sang "Hurrah for the handiwork!
Hurrah for the spear and sword!
Hurrah for the hand that shall wield them well,
For he shall be king and lord!"
To Tubal Cain came many a one,
As he wrought by his roaring fire;
And each one prayed for a strong steel blade
As the crown of his desire.
And he made them weapons sharp and strong,
Till they shouted loud for glee,
And gave him gifts of pearl and gold,
And spoils of the forest free;
And they said, "Hurrah for Tubal Cain,
Who hath given us strength anew!
Hurrah for the smith, Hurrah for the fire,
And Hurrah for the metal true!"
But a sudden change came o'er his heart
Ere the setting of the sun,
And Tubal Cain was filled with pain for
The Evil he had done;
He saw that men, with rage and hate,
Made war upon their kind,
That the land was red with the blood they shed,
In their lust for carnage blind.
And he said, "Alas! that ever I made,
Or the skill of mine should plan,
The spear and the sword for men whose joy
Is to slay their fellow-man."
And for many a day old Tubal Cain
Sat brooding o'er his woe;
And his hand forbore to smite the ore,
And his furnace smouldered low.
But he rose at last with a cheerful face,
And a bright courageous eye,
And bared his strong right hand for work
While the quick flames mounted high!
And he sang, "Hurrah for my handicraft!"
And the red sparks lit the air;
"Not alone for the blade was the bright steel made!"
And he fashioned the first ploughshare.
And men, taught wisdom from the past,
In friendship joined their hands;
Hung the sword in the hall, the spear on the wall,
And ploughed the willing lands;
And sang, "Hurrah for Tubal Cain!
Our staunch good friend is he;
And for the ploughshare and the plough
To him our praise shall be;
But while oppression lifts its head,
Or a tyrant would be lord
Though we may thank him for the plough
We'll not forget the sword!"
Mackay married twice, first during his time in Glasgow, to Rosa Henrietta Vale, with whom he had three sons and a daughter. His second wife was Mary Elizabeth Mills who he married on 27th February, 1861, and with whom he had a daughter Mary “Minnie” Mackay. Mary is variously described as “illegitimate” or “adopted”, and there seems to be some speculation about whether she was born out of wedlock to Charles and his second wife; or whether she was born to Mackay’s first wife following their separation, and later adopted by Charles and his second wife, following Rosa’s death.
In any event, Charles’ daughter “Minnie” later became known publicly as Marie Corelli, and while little known now; like her father, she became a very famous writer in her day, prompting one academic commentator to refer to her as:
“an unparalleled literary phenomenon and it is arguable that during her time she was, after Victoria, the most famous woman in England.”
Charles Mackay died on 24th December, 1889.
[This article first appeared in the 75th edition of the ‘Provincial Patter’, the quarterly newsletter of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Ross & Cromarty in May, 2013]
By Kenneth Jack Master of Lodge St. Andrew No. 814